It won’t be on the level of a championship parade or an organized greeting at the airport, but when Arizona plays Wichita State on Thursday night at Hi Corbett it will may like the entire Wildcat Nation will be on hand.
In reality, there will only be about 1,600 people in attendance in the 10,000-seat stadium, the maximum allowed under the athletic department’s plan to reintegrate fans to sporting events.
“We’ll take it,” UA coach Jay Johnson said Wednesday. “I really view Tucson as a baseball town. We’re lucky to be the main baseball attraction. I don’t take their contribution lightly.”
Arizona (10-2) got to experience baseball with fans last weekend at the Frisco College Baseball Classic in Texas, where Johnson said there was a “significant amount” of people in the stands at Dr. Pepper Ballpark. That made for a third type of environment in as many weeks to start the season, as Arizona was completely fanless—only media and scouts were in attendance—for its opening series at Hi Corbett, while the second weekend included players’ family members.
“The opening weekend with nobody was very strange,” Johnson said. “There was a different energy in the ballpark from week two to week one just having the players families in there, which was, I thought, was really positive.”
This will be all Wildcat fans, however, which has the players pumped to show off for their own after impressing a neutral crowd at Frisco.
“We’re super excited,” sophomore Ryan Holgate said. “We’ve been waiting for fans for a long time now. It’s going to feel like the atmosphere we had before. It’s just great to see a bunch of smiles on people’s faces.”
The fans in attendance will get a chance to see in person arguably the hottest team in college baseball. Arizona has won nine in a row, outscoring the Frisco field 55-26 in a quartet of marathon games that all went longer than 3 ½ hours.
So it goes when you collect 53 hits but also draw 32 walks.
The Wildcats lead the nation in free passes, with 91 in 12 games compared to only 88 strikeouts, which has been key in averaging 9.7 runs per game. Walking a lot isn’t the goal, but instead a byproduct of what Johnson wants his hitters doing at the plate.
“The goal in mind is to take a quality at-bat that’s going to move the offense that’s going to help the team win,” he said. “When you control the strike zone that means you’re staying within your plan. In its simplicity, the plan is really to be able to hit mistakes, to be really difficult outs with two strikes and manage the strike zones. If you do all of those things well, two out of three might end up a mistake. You hit a mistake you won’t get to a walk.”
By drawing a lot of walks, Arizona has been able to accomplish a key game goal of chasing the opposing starting pitcher before the end of the sixth inning in 11 of 12 contests.
“What you’re doing there is leaving 10-plus outs for the bullpen to try and get through our lineup,” Johnson said.
Arizona was originally scheduled to host Wichita State (6-3) for four games, but instead will face the Shockers Thursday-Saturday and then Air Force (4-5) on Sunday afternoon. The Sunday game against Wichita would have needed to start at 9 a.m. local time in order for the Shockers to make their flight home, so instead Wichita will face Air Force on Saturday afternoon before taking on the UA that evening so each team gets four games and Air Force—which had its series against San Jose State postponed because of SJSU’s COVID issues—will get two in.
Johnson said there are contingency plans for Friday, when there’s a chance of rain in the forecast. The game that evening could be moved up or started later, depending on if/when it rains, or the Wildcats could play twice Saturday against the Shockers (who would end up playing three times that day).
“We’ll find a way to get four games in,” Johnson said.